TORONTO – Daniel Alfredsson is without question the perfect spokesman for a talk about the NHL versus Europe (or, international hockey) because he has had both a phenomenal career in the NHL, with the Ottawa Senators, as well as a great international career with Tre Kronor at the Olympics and World Championships. Wasting no time, he addressed the issue of rink size at the first Hot Stove Session at the Hockey Hall of Fame tonight to start the Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit in Toronto.
“I prefer the small rink,” he said. “I think my game fits better on the smaller ice. But at the same time, I grew up on big ice. I think you skate more, handle the puck more, develop a more all-round game. It’s a better training ground.”
Alfredsson addressed the contradiction of the tradition of playing on big ice for the Olympics and the most recent Olympics, in Vancouver, which was played on the smaller, NHL ice for the first time.
“I like the tradition of the big ice for the Olympics,” he admitted, “but the games in Vancouver were unbelievable, and the quality of hockey outstanding, so it’s hard to say we should always play on the bigger ice after what we saw in February.”
Alfredsson made another insightful remark. “The bigger ice produces a slower game, a game about puck possession. You can hold onto the puck, set up in the offensive end behind the net. In the NHL, it’s a straight-ahead game. It’s easier to forecheck and get on the defenceman, and you have a lot less time with the puck. It’s faster. And the NHL has done a great job with the rules, eliminating the clutching and grabbing. So that makes it faster on the small ice, and the rules have a bearing on how the size of the ice plays a role in the kind of game we play.”
Glenn Healy and Bob McCown, the other panelists in this group moderated by broadcaster Paul Romanuk, offered contradictory opinions. Healy pointed to the colossal success of the Vancouver Olympics, which attracted record TV audiences in Canada and the United States, whereas McCown made the simple observation that players have gotten much larger, which necessitates a bigger sheet of ice to keep the players of the same size in ratio to the historical size of the ice and each other.
In light of the recent demise of the Champions Hockey League and reviving the successful format the IIHF created two years ago, Alfredsson was enthusiastic, with a caveat. “It’s got to be meaningful competition,” he noted. “It can’t be just one game before the season, but it’s a format that could help the game. The Champions League [in football] is hugely successful and what we would strive for.”
The last topic for discussion was NHL expansion to Europe, and the panel was unanimous in rejecting the idea more or less outright. “Can Stockholm support an NHL team?” Alfredsson asked out loud. “Of course, but you also have three domestic league teams in that city, and you can’t just sweep them under the rug. Each country has a league that’s important for player development, so although the NHL is the best and most powerful league, you can’t just expand to Europe like that.”